Oh, goodness me. I’ve gone and bought a handful of old film cameras on Ebay. Six, exactly – purchased on the cheap with the understanding that they might not work. I think I’ve done alright – three apparently just fine, one with a minor but non-fatal issue, and two that are clearly defunct, at least until someone more skilled than me works on them a bit. And what a motley crew they are: Minolta Hi-Matic 7 and 11, Yashica M, Voigtländer VF-101, and the amusingly-named Taron Promaster and Super Westomat 35. For the record, the Westomat and the Hi-Matic 7 are the dead ones.
The main difference from my other old film cameras is that these are all rangefinders, meaning that you focus them by turning a dial or ring to make two superimposed images in the viewfinder line up. This is a step up from the distance-scale focusing of my Silette and Brillant, where you either guess at (“estimate”) the distance to the subject and dial it in, or carry a tape measure.
In recent weeks, I’ve run film through all four of the working ones, and a clear favourite has emerged. So, in the words of Al Pacino in Scarface (which I cheerfully admit I’ve never seen): let me introduce you to my little friend – the Voigtländer VF-101.
If you’ve read older posts here, you might remember another Voigtländer, the 1937 version of the Brillant V6. This VF-101 is a lot younger, dating from somewhere between 1972 and 1976, and was made not in Braunschweig, but Singapore. It’s from a time when Voigtländer was no longer an independent company, having passed through Carl Zeiss (those makers of fine microscopes) and into the hands of photographic heavyweight Rollei. To add further confusion, the camera is badged on the bottom as a Rollei, and is cosmetically nearly identical to the contemporary Zeiss Ikon Contessa S 312. It also came in a very attractive all-black version.
The camera is a lovely little thing – compact, seeming hardly big enough to accept a roll of 35mm film, but reassuringly solid. It has a built-in light meter that couples to the exposure settings, and miraculously uses regular 1.5-volt batteries, rather than the impossible-to-find and environmentally unfriendly 1.35-volt mercury cells of older cameras. It’s dead simple to use, too – a meter needle in the viewfinder tells you if you’re in the right exposure range, and a single dial on the lens barrel chooses an aperture, with the camera selecting a shutter speed to go with it. Focusing is by the old rangefinder technique of twisting a dial around the lens barrel, and lining up two images in the viewfinder – the “real” scene, and a ghost image from the little, round rangefinder window next to it. Easy.
Everything about this little charmer works exactly as I’d want it to, and it seems to take rather nice photographs.
I’ve taken a break from the VF-101 recently in order to try out some of its cousins (that Taron Promaster was a pleasant surprise, in case you were wondering). But I’ll come back to it, with some slower colour film, because it really is a joy to use, and it tucks away nicely into a pocket. I have a few new locations in mind where it might do well. In the meantime, stay tuned for examples from the others.